Pork, Politics, and Parks: The Story of the Pig War, the San Juan Islands, and a National Historic Park

            Until recently, I had never heard of the international incident between America and Great Britain that started with the killing of a pig. When the Oregon Treaty of 1846 was signed, a major flaw in regard to the wording left the boundary between America and Great Britain unclear. The area in dispute included the San Juan Islands, which are located between today’s cities of Victoria, BC and Bellingham, Washington. The Treaty was ambiguous and opened the door to conflict over which country was actually awarded the islands. On June 15, 1859 on San Juan Island, an American named Lyman Cutlar shot and killed a pig that belonged to Charles Griffin, a Brit working for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The company, who had moved onto the Island for the purpose of raising sheep, was not happy with the American “squatters,” as Griifin put it, who were disrupting the sheep raising enterprise of the HBC. When Griffin’s pig had been caught yet again rooting around in Cutlar’s potato patch. Cutlar was incensed and shot the pig. This single incident nearly led to a major war between the U.S. and Great Britain.  While the idea of starting a major war over the killing of an animal seems almost silly, the consequences were all too serious and real. What started out over such a simple dispute steadily escalated until a showdown between the two nations, warships and cannons at the ready, were within a breath away from opening fire. Mike Vouri, in his book The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay, had this to say about the event:

 “Even farcical conflicts have real victims”

            There were many personalities that played a role in the story over the dispute of the San Juan Islands. Governor James Douglas, a Brit who felt that his country had been given a raw deal losing access to the Columbia river and Fort Vancouver to the Americans, was bound and determined to hold the San Juans for the honor of Britain. William Selby Harney, an “Anglophobe” with a “ready-fire-aim” kind of personality was an inept leader, who, if not for being a favorite of Andrew Jacksons, would have been court-martialed long before. Harney’s reckless actions and chest beating almost single handedly brought the two countries to the brink of war. Mike Vouri points out that

 “at this point half a Scott was better than a whole Harney” 

He was referring to president Buchanan’s decision to have Winfield Scott, who was old and crippled at the time, brought in to help quell the dispute. Eventually, cool heads prevailed in the conflict. Geoffrey Phipps Hornby, captain of the British warship Tribune, refused orders from Governor Douglas to fire upon the American’s. His actions helped avert war. Also, Rear Admiral R. Lambert Baynes, who backed Hornby’s refusal, played a role as well. The cool heads of Winfield Scott, Geoffrey Hornby and Lambert Baynes were crucial to avoiding war. With the American and British governments so far away from the San Juans, and correspondence taking several weeks, it was crucial that those in the field “could make critical decisions” (the Pig War, page 193). Eventually the two countries agreed to a joint occupation of San Juan Island, which existed peacefully for 12 years. In 1872, Germany, acting as international arbiter, placed the boundary between the two countries at the Haro Strait, which finally settled the matter once and for all. The San Juan Islands officially became part of the United States.   

Modern map showing the San Jaun Islands, along with the location of San Juan National Historical Park..

            The story of the Pig War is kept alive at the San Juan Islands National Historical Park. The park helps serve as a testimony to the peaceful resolution to a conflict that could have resulted in a deadly war between two of the world’s most powerful countries. In conjunction with Eastern Washington University, islandhistories.com is a digital collection of stories as they relate to the Pig War and the San Juan Islands. As a student at EWU, I hope to add to the digital collection. I think a great exhibit would be one that shows the different ships that were involved during the conflict, especially the war ships, along with a short explanation and history of each ship’s captain. I think another idea for a great exhibit for island histories would be an in depth look at the “Great Pacificator” Winfield Scott, and the role he played in de-escalating the conflict.

            Following is a short you tube video discussing the pig war. Enjoy!     

3 thoughts on “Pork, Politics, and Parks: The Story of the Pig War, the San Juan Islands, and a National Historic Park”

  1. I think both your summary of the events and your proposed stories for IslandHistories are fabulous. I look forward to seeing what we all produce!

  2. You did a great job of portraying the all too human flaws of all the characters involved. Also, I like your idea for the exhibition. Good work!

  3. I really enjoyed your use of quotes in your blog. Likewise, you had an exceedingly thoughtful and thorough summary of Mike Vouri’s book. I am also interested in the ships of the Pig War as a topic for further discussion. Excellent post Brian!

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